Guatemala survivors homeless year after mudslide

News and Press Release
Originally published
By Mica Rosenberg

PANABAJ, Guatemala, Oct 5 (Reuters) - A year after a mudslide wiped out the Guatemalan village of Panabaj, killing hundreds, Maya Indians are still living in precarious camps dangerously close to the disaster site.

More than 300 families huddle in dirt-floored huts with communal latrines in a camp just feet (metres) from where thousands of tonnes of mud and rock buried the lakeside village.

Critics are furious at the government's failure to do more to find them new, safe homes. A report by independent watchdog Citizen Action said less then half of some 7,900 families whose land was washed away in the storm have been relocated.

"The government has focused all its attention on reconstructing highways and bridges instead of building houses," said Ovidio Paz from the human rights ombudsman's office in Solola, the department where Panabaj is located.

When it rains hard, torrents of water rush through the camp, and terrified families run for cover, fearing a repeat of heavy rains from Hurricane Stan that triggered the mudslide.

"We are afraid to stay anywhere near here where everything happened but there is nowhere else to go," said Concepcion Mendoza, 44, who lost 13 members of her family.

"The municipality isn't doing anything," she said in her native Mayan Tzutujil language near the spot where her family's house once stood on the shores of idyllic Lake Atitlan, one of Guatemala's top tourist magnets.

A government project to build new houses almost on top of the buried village was halted by outraged disaster officials, who said it was even more of a risk from a new mudslide than the temporary camp.

Since then, efforts to buy land in a safer spot have been thwarted by local landowners' reluctance to sell at reasonable prices, officials said.

To pressure the authorities, families are threatening to move into cinder-block houses the government half-built during the aborted relocation attempt.


At 4 a.m., the time the mudslide began a year ago on Thursday, a memorial procession passed a cemetery and then marked the disaster at Panabaj, declared a mass grave because rescue workers could not dig out most of the victims.

Hundreds of townspeople carrying candles, flowers, palm fronds and pictures of lost loved ones held Roman Catholic and Protestant masses and Mayan ceremonies to mark the day.

Eduardo Aguirre, who heads the government reconstruction effort, says negotiations to purchase land to rebuild the village are frustrated by property owners trying to sell lots at quadruple the market price, beyond his budget.

No one knows exactly how many people died in the tragedy but it appears to be fewer than first feared.

Firefighters put the initial toll at 1,400, but later estimates were that about 1,000 died. Panabaj's mayor says 600 bodies are still under the mud but forensic anthropologists due to excavate the site in November say the number is nearer 300.

No official records exist of how many people lived in Panabaj at the time of the tragedy.

Other victims of last year's storm feel even more forgotten.

In Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, on the misty mountains near the lake, families are living in U.S. Agency for International Development shelters lacking electricity and running water.

"People have lost their hope," said community leader Miguel Guachiac y Guachiac. "The government keeps promising things but up until now there have been no results."

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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